I broke through a barrier on Christmas Day: I paid $9.99 for an e-book, something I swore I would never do. And it was worth it.
I had been wanting to read Parker: The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of the Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) novel, but this is the busiest time of year for me, and I hadn't gotten a review copy. So there I was, with my best-of-the-year list due the next day, with no copy of a book that I was quite sure deserved to be on the list. Fortunately, IDW, which publishes the Parker books, has just decided to put its graphic novels in the iTunes store as standalone apps, and Parker: The Outfit is available for $9.99.
In general, I think $10 is too much for an e-book, which is essentially an ephemeral thing. You don't really buy e-books, you rent them, although it's more of a long-term lease. I still have books that I bought 30 years ago; the same will not be true of my e-books. That said, ten bucks for the Parker book is better than a 50% savings off the price of the print book. And it's Darwyn Cooke, dammit. So I bit.
Best ten bucks I ever spent.
Let's talk content first. Parker: The Outfit is a tale of revenge, pure and simple: Someone in the criminal syndicate known as the Outfit has put a hit out on Parker, and he sets out to avenge himself and put the threat to rest permanently. This is, of course, preposterous, but everything about Parker is preposterous. He's the perfect antihero, capable of taking on three guys at a time and leaving them all bloody without ever getting a hair out of place.
So when a hit man surprises a Parker in his hotel room, Parker handily dispatches the guy without firing a shot, instead throwing his gun across the room to hit him in the head, knocking him into the wall hard enough to cause a concussion. That sets the action in motion, as Parker quickly figures out who ordered the hit and works his way up the chain of command to the head of the Outfit.
Parker is a super-thief, specializing in complicated jobs, and before the action begins in The Outfit, he has gotten plastic surgery to make himself unrecognizable to his enemies. He bankrolls this surgery with an armored-car robbery that involved several double-crosses and left one of his confederates dead. (This story was told in the one-shot comic The Man with the Getaway Face and is included as a flashback in this book.) Only that confederate, Slim Lasker, didn't die and was the one who gave Parker up to the Outfit.
Parker quickly dispatches Slim and then does something that seems quaint now: He sends letters to all his friends, asking them to rob the Outfit's businesses (gambling joints and roadhouses), just to harass them. Then, with a bit of help from his friends, he goes after the leadership of the organization.
In one way, the story is straightforward: Parker meets his enemies and takes them on one by one. He's clever of course, and much of the entertainment in this book comes from simply sitting back and watching him work. Cooke breaks it up in the middle of the book by presenting several capers as if they were in a magazine, a technique he also used in The New Frontier: Each is presented in a different style, the first as a prose story, the others as little cartoons, and each story carefully details how the crime is pulled off. It not only breaks up the story, it allows him to present a complicated bit of narrative in a simple format.
All these individual jobs are a break in the main storyline—they don't push the plot forward at all, but they are entertaining in their own right, especially for those of us who are young enough not to remember how the numbers racket actually worked. Cooke's technique of pulling them out and handling them in a separate style works well; if the reader wants to skip them, it's easy to see where the main narrative picks up again.
Anyone thinking of adapting a prose book to graphic novel format should study the Parker books, because Cooke does a superb job of not just illustrating the story but retelling it in the new medium, making full use of all its strengths. This starts with his style, which reflects the setting of the books (1963); his choice of black and white and a single color, as well as his drawing style, is strongly reminiscent of magazine illustration of the time. He uses paneling to control the pacing of the story in an almost cinematic fashion, using full-page establishing shots, focusing in tightly on details, and breaking down complicated movements into a series of small frames, almost like an animated film. He manages to include enough of Parker's narration to make this feel like a first-person story without getting overly wordy. And he creates a quirky look for each of the side characters—this is not a book where you can't tell one character from another.
While I have no doubt the print edition is a beautiful book, the digital version has a lot to be said for it. IDW preserved the book's vintage feel (even on the iPad) by using a creamy color for the background rather than stark white; it also makes the book a bit easier on the eyes. Cooke's sharp strokes show up well in this backlit format. I wasn't sure if the iPad would be a comfortable fit for a long-form book, but it flows smoothly and it was an effortless read. The app only allows the reader to turn pages by swiping, not tapping, but that's a minor inconvenience. The "see all" tab at the top of the page allows the reader to see the whole book in thumbnails, which makes navigation easier if you want to flip back and check something.
Overall, I think ten bucks for this book was a good deal. It's a high quality book, presented well, and I'll definitely read it more than once. I would like to be able to lend it to people without handing them my iPad, but the app is a big enough savings over the price of the print book (even online) to overcome that minor inconvenience.